Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

Updated and expanded September 16th, 2015

Birth name: Frederick Austerlitz
Birthdate: Wednesday, May 10th, 1899
Location: Omaha, Nebraska, USA

Died: Monday, June 22nd, 1987
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of death: Pneumonia

Best known for: Acting and dancing in, and choreographing, musical films, often with Ginger Rogers, with most success in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, including Top Hat (1935), Holiday Inn (1942), Easter Parade (1948), The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957), Finian's Rainbow (1968) and The Towering Inferno (1976).

After all those years of singing and dancing in top hat and tails, it was always going to be that Fred had to slow down some time. In the 1960s and 70s he found work on TV and in straight roles in films such as Dr Kildare (1965), It Takes a Thief (1969-70) and of course, The Towering Inferno (1974).

Fred, aged 79, in Battlestar Galactica
with Dirk Benedict
However, one of Fred's most bizarre roles was also one of his last, that of Chameleon (aka Captain Dimitri) in the Battlestar Galactica episode The Man with Nine Lives. Broadcast in January 1979, it features Fred as an intergalactic con man who convinces Dirk Benedict's Starbuck that he might be his long lost father in order to elude capture.

After this Fred appeared in various roles (shop proprietor, policeman, chauffeur, cab driver etc) in a TV movie called The Man in the Santa Claus Suit, broadcast on December 23rd, 1979, and co-starring John Byner, Bert Convy and Gary Burghoff as three men who hire a Father Christmas suit and are changed by the experience of wearing it. And guess who plays the real Santa Claus at the end...?

Santa Claus, as played by Fred!
Fred's last screen acting role was in the 1981 horror film Ghost Story, which was also, incidentally, the final appearance for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fred was 82 when he played Ricky Hawthorne in this film, one of four elderly members of The Chowder Society who meet up and tell one another horror stories (the other members are Fairbanks, Melvyn Douglas and John Houseman).

The film didn't do too badly at the box office, pulling in a respectable $23.4m and earning a Saturn Award nomination for Best Horror Film (it lost out to Poltergeist).

Fred was an active man in his later years, reportedly breaking his left wrist while riding his grandson's skateboard in 1977, aged 78! Although he had married New York socialite Phyllis Potter in 1933, he was widowed when she died of lung cancer aged just 46 in 1954. Fred remained a widower for over 25 years until he married New York jockey Robyn Smith (44 years his junior) in 1980. There are some reports that claim Robyn gradually shut Fred off from his family over the following years.

Fred with his second wife Robyn,
pictured in July 1981, when he was 82
and she was 36
In March 1987 Fred was invited to accept an award from Capezio Dance Shoes in New York City, but his failing health meant he was unable to attend. On June 12th, 1987 he checked into hospital (under the pseudonym Fred Giles) with breathing problems after suffering a cold, but the cold turned into pneumonia, and he died 10 days later, on June 22nd, 1987, at 4.25am, aged 88.

He was buried  - next to his first wife Phyllis, mother Ann and sister Adele - at Oakwood Memorial Park in California on June 25th, wearing a smoking jacket, black trousers and patent leather shoes. Robyn (now in her 70s) keeps tight control over the use of her late husband's image to this day; indeed, Fred always said that he didn't want his life story to be told, expecting the facts to be misinterpreted.

One of the latest sightings of Fred can be seen in episode two of the documentary series Hollywood, the Golden Years: The RKO Story, for which Fred was interviewed. I don't know when Fred recorded his interview, but the programme was first broadcast on Friday, July 10th, 1987, less than three weeks after his death.

Fred as he appeared in Hollywood, the Golden Years: The RKO Story,
broadcast in 1987

A bit of fun...
Here's a beautifully put together video of Fred Astaire dancing to Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal (footage from The Band Wagon). Fred's even dressed like Jackson is in the Smooth Criminal video. Criminally clever...

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